Critique Technique, Part 16: Unclear or Insufficient Obstacles

Back in Part 9 I wrote about conflict. One form of conflict for characters is the obstacles they face: the things that keep them from achieving their goals. Obstacles come in many forms: physical objects, situations, people, animals, laws, psychological or emotional blockages, and more. Pretty much anything can be an obstacle given the right circumstances.

That, unfortunately, can be a problem as well as an opportunity.

The “Right” Obstacles

Black and yellow concrete barriers

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Authors have the opportunity to select the obstacles their characters will face. Pick the right ones and the story’s tension and conflict ratchet right up. Pick the wrong ones, though, and the reader is left scratching his head.

So what makes an obstacle “right?” Here are some considerations. The obstacle needs to be:

  • Germane to the story. Relevant, in other words. If the story’s heroine is chasing a serial killer, having her struggle over a decision whether to pick the tutti-frutti ice cream, or the rocky road, at Baskin-Robbins® isn’t likely to be relevant. Or it could be—context will tell.
  • Significant. Sticking with our sticky ice cream decision, it’s hard to see how that’s likely to be important to our heroine or her quest. Again, it could be, but the author is going to have to reveal that importance, and right quickly.
  • Hard to overcome. If the ice cream slinger behind the counter tells our heroine he’s all out of tutti-frutti, so much for the obstacle. If he then whips out a gun and tells her she’s out of time, too, well, that’s another matter—and another obstacle. But seriously, up to a point, the harder it’s going to be for the character to overcome what’s just been placed in her way, the better. Even truly impossible obstacles can work just fine if they force the character to choose another path toward her goal. Seemingly impossible obstacles give the character a chance to show (or develop) her intelligence, creativity, and simple pluck as she does, in fact, get over, under, around, or through that barrier.
  • Worse than the last one. Remember how we’ve discussed rising tension and conflict? Increasingly difficult obstacles are an easy way to achieve that. Piling on troubles keeps the story moving. Within reason, of course. Too many obstacles, too outrageous ones, or seemingly irrelevant ones, can make the reader put the book down—an obstacle to them finishing the book, and to the author getting further sales.
  • Evident. This one’s tricky. At some point the true nature of an obstacle will have to become clear to the reader and the character, although not necessarily at the same time. However, before that point is reached, particularly if the obstacle is psychological or emotional, the character may struggle to figure out what’s bothering him or keeping him from doing what he wants or is supposed to do. That struggle can be the core of the story. The hidden obstacle is a major technique and theme in literary fiction but it can show up in other genres as well. Consider, for example, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The character known as The Mule is the obstacle to everyone else’s plans, including the Foundation’s, yet that isn’t revealed until near the end of the initial trilogy.

What You’re Looking For

As a reviewer, then, your job is to see if the author has placed the “right” kind of obstacles in his characters’ way, at the right time, in the right number, at the right degree of difficulty, with the right degree of clarity. Whew! That’s a lot of “rights.” Determining if the author has done the job “right” is a judgment call and it takes a bit of stepping back from the line-by-line of the story to see its broader scope. Looked at from that perspective, you should be able to see how the obstacles support and build on each other, raising the stakes and driving the character and the story forward.

One last thing: at the end of the story, all of those obstacles will have to have been dealt with—unless, of course, one of those obstacles remains as the connection to the next story in the series. Loose ends need to be tied up at the conclusion.

Questions for You

So, to finish up, here are some questions for you to ask yourself as you review a piece:

  • Has the author placed any obstacles in front of his characters?
    • If not, what obstacle is the author facing that’s keeping him from doing this?
  • Can I identify what those obstacles are?
    • If not, why not? What’s missing?
  • Does the character who’s being blocked know what the obstacle is? How does her knowledge or ignorance affect her behavior?
  • Are the obstacles relevant to the story, and contribute to it? Are they believable?
    • If not, why not, and what does the author need to fix?
  • Are the obstacles big enough and important enough to the character being blocked that he has to struggle to overcome them or find a way around them?
    • If not, what kinds of obstacles could the author create or add?
  • Do the obstacles get bigger and more important over time?
    • If not, what can the author do to make them bigger and more important?
  • Are they wrapped up at the end?
    • If not, did the author simply fail to take care of them, or was this intentional?

What do you look for when evaluating the obstacles an author has placed in front of her characters? There’s no obstacle to you adding your suggestions in the comments box below. Just scroll on down.

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